IMSA’s oddball start to the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season is about to end.
Like a reverse NFL season, IMSA opens with its Super Bowl, January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, follows with its next step down, akin to the playoffs, at March’s 12 hours of Sebring, and closes with the equivalent of a mini training camp at April’s 100-minute Long Beach round, the shortest race on its calendar.
IMSA first standard-length race of the season, the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio, arrives this weekend and brings a feeling of normalcy with Sunday’s 2h40m event. The transition from odd to standard also brings heightened expectations for teams and manufacturers looking to use the regular 2h40m rounds to patch any leaky holes in their formative championship bids.
Since the formula’s launch in January of 2017, the win tally in DPi has been a blessing for one manufacturer, a pleasant surprise for another, and an ongoing source of acid reflux for the other two.
Cadillac has won 14 from the 23 DPi races held since so far, including all three we’ve run this year. Nissan, in the hands of the former Extreme Speed Motorsports team, took two apiece in 2017 and 2018, leaving it with four wins as CORE autosport tries to add to the tally.
After Cadillac and Nissan, it’s slim pickings.
Acura, new to DPi last season, is the defending winner at Mid-Ohio. It also continues to hold station with that single victory. At the event sponsored by the brand it’s hired to represent, there’s a definite sense that Team Penske’s Acura ARX-05 DPis should be in a more consistent hunt for wins. Four podiums in 2018 was a good start, and two more podiums from three rounds this year is encouraging, but Acura and Team Penske only measure success in wins and losses.
Wind the clock back to the program’s debut, and nobody would have predicted a 1-for-13 outcome by the time we arrived at May of 2019. Balance of Performance limitations can be blamed for some of the 1-for-13, but not enough to gloss over the 7.7-percent win rate. For Acura Team Penske, starting a heavy and sustained rally over the seven remaining races with a win at Mid-Ohio would be a perfectly-timed thing.
The last, and most obvious need-to-win note goes to Mazda Team Joest. The story we should be discussing after Daytona, Sebring, and Long Beach is how fast and effective Mazda’s RT24-Ps have been. That story, while true, has been blighted by increasing depths of bad luck and self-induced misfortune. A few weeks ago, in southern California, it was a needless crash in practice that destroyed a chassis and necessitated an all-nighter to prep a new car by race morning.
A fourth-place finish in the sister car—the best of the year, so far—and a problem-limited eighth for the new car has the proud challenger brand on its continuing quest for a breakthrough win. Take whatever pressure Acura Team Penske is feeling and realize the Mazda gang have been living with it piled atop their shoulders – and more – since 2017.
Like Acura, Mazda expects top results from its high-profile team partner. In its first big trial since its Audi LMP1 Le Mans program ended, Team Joest needs to prove it can make a winner out of Mazda if it wants to maintain its reputation. In context, and ignoring 2017 when Team Joest was not involved, the program is 0-for-13.
Whether it’s an 0-fer or a 1-fer, just know that Acura and Mazda are looking to use Mid-Ohio and all of the races they have left this season to write a new narrative before the Cadillacs author a 10-fer…
Drawing from the same notion that we’ve only crossed off three of 10 races, it does feel strange to enter May without having a win by Corvette Racing and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing to talk about.
BMW erased any memories of the M8 GTE’s dismal debut at Daytona in 2018 with a popular win during January’s 24-hour boat race. Porsche cooked up monster wins for both entries across Sebring and Long Beach, and if it weren’t for a mistaken touch of the pit lane speed limiter by Ford’s Dirk Muller while leading in the LBC, who knows, maybe we’d have three different winners to celebrate.
Possibly drawing its inspiration from the epic race-length decrease from Daytona to Sebring to Long Beach, the leading No. 3 Corvette C7.R piloted by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia has recorded finishes of sixth, third, and second entering Mid-Ohio. The team would obviously welcome a continuation of that trend with a first-place on Sunday, and with the sister No. 4 Corvette coming off a third at Long Beach, a 1-2 would make for a lovely wrinkle in the GTLM standings.
Ford’s fortunate have wandered a bit this year, and with Joey Hand missing the last round due to illness, Mid-Ohio represents a perfect chance to hit the proverbial reset button and pursue its first GTLM in what could be the Ford GT’s swansong as a factory machine.
We’re only three races into the season, which is good, but with IMSA’s miserly points payout structure, fumbling at Mid-Ohio is something few GTLM title contenders can afford. Spare a thought for BMW Team RLL as well. The grand victory at Daytona notwithstanding, the hulking M8 GTEs have not factored since January. As Porsche holds a 1-2 in the standings (Corvette’s No. 3 entry is tied for second as well), and Ford’s No. 66 of Hand/Sebastien Bourdais and Dirk Muller in fourth, BMW’s Connor Di Phillippi holds fifth while the second BMW is eighth…in a class of eight full-time cars.
Where Corvette and Ford are concerned over losing ground to Porsche in the title chase, BMW is one or two poor finishes away from losing any hope of a meaningful outcome to the season. Sure, it’s only May, but rebounding from a bad three or four-race stretch is nearly impossible in IMSA.
In a growing list of manufacturers with fingers and toes crossed for good luck at Mid-Ohio, BMW sits alongside Acura and Mazda.
IMSA’s pro-am GT Daytona class has been on a long hiatus after skipping Long Beach. Its entrants endured 36 hours of racing through mid-March, and have been waiting to resume the action this weekend where, after the Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 team blitzed both opening rounds, a new GTD winner will emerge.
The long-race specialists aren’t on the Mid-Ohio entry list, and with the championship leaders absent, Grasser’s closest rivals will start the long process of chopping down the monstrous points deficit to first place. Unlike DPi and GTLM, it’s hard to point to any single manufacturer or team and highlight gross misgivings or obvious needs after two races. After Grasser in the standings, it’s either a case of one good result and one bad result by the remaining contenders, or teams that have been fair, but far from disastrous to date.
Lexus scored its breakthrough win last year at Mid-Ohio, and with AIM Vasser-Sullivan in charge of the RCF GT3s, it enters the event with the No. 12 Lexus clutching second in points. Magnus Racing is one point behind with its No. 44 Lamborghini, Meyer Shank Racing is one point behind them with the No. 86 Acura NSX GT3…Riley Motorsports is one point behind them with the No. 33 Mercedes AMG GT3…
Audis and Ferraris have at least one good result across Daytona and Sebring… The only car missing from the leading edge of the GTD fight is the lone BMW M6 GT3, entered by Turner Motorsport. It’s the oldest model in the class, and yet, Turner’s team is always a threat to surprise with the ageing machine.
By the time Mid-Ohio is over, we’ll have a better idea on where the levels of desperation and satisfaction fall before the IMSA season resumes June 1 in Detroit.